Blessed Are the Peacemakers: For They Shalt Have .50cal Machine Gun Turrets

September 6, 2008

Missed this story when it first broke, but can you think of a reason for a local police department to have an armored personnel carrier with a mounted 50 caliber machine gun turret? Can you imagine them actually using such a thing in a residential neighborhood in the U.S.?

Probably not. The Sheriff claims that the vehicle will “save lives” and reasons that when “something like this rolls up, it’s time to give up.” I’m all for the police being appropriately armed, but give me a break. First of all, this thing is not going to have time to “roll up” unless the police are either conducting a pre-planned raid, or having a long standoff. And in either case, I very much doubt that an APC is going to intimidate criminals any more than twelve guys in riot gear and machine guns already can. .50cal machine guns are for closed firing ranges and war zones: places where you either want to have safe, human-target-free gun fun, or else turn real human beings into hamburger. They don’t belong in residential or urban police operations for anything short of Die Hard.

But wait: what if I told you that it all made sense because… because… Jesus!

Sheriff Lott stated that the name selected from the entries will be “The Peacemaker” because that is the APC’s purpose and the bible refers to law enforcement in Matthew 5:9 “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God”.

As DrugWarRant points out:

In all my reading of the beatitudes, I never once imagined Christ astride an Armored Personnel Carrier complete with a turret-mounted .50-caliber belt-fed machine gun, surrounded by apostles in SWAT gear, as he said to the crowd “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.”

Astronaut Claims UFOs Are Real, Government Conspiracy

July 24, 2008

Former Astronaut Dr. Edgar Mitchell claims that aliens are already among us. And that they’re, like, real tiny-like.

Dr Mitchell, 77, said during a radio interview that sources at the space agency who had had contact with aliens described the beings as ‘little people who look strange to us.’

He said supposedly real-life ET’s were similar to the traditional image of a small frame, large eyes and head.

Chillingly, he claimed our technology is “not nearly as sophisticated” as theirs and “had they been hostile”, he warned “we would be been gone by now”.

Well, that’s good, I suppose. As a person of short stature and large head myself, I’ve always prided myself on having superior technology.

Anyhoo, the biggest claim he makes is that he’s actually been briefed by the government on the existence of aliens. Well… maybe:

“It’s been well covered up by all our governments for the last 60 years or so, but slowly it’s leaked out and some of us have been privileged to have been briefed on some of it.

“I’ve been in military and intelligence circles, who know that beneath the surface of what has been public knowledge, yes – we have been visited. Reading the papers recently, it’s been happening quite a bit.”

The phrasing makes this confusing: in one case he says that he was briefed on aliens, presumably by the government. That’s a pretty incredible claim. But very quickly it sounds like he’s talking about basically just reading some “papers” out in the public (newspapers? tabloids? peer-reviewed journals?) that he interprets as alien encounters. The former is pretty darn important: potential evidence of a real government conspiracy. The latter is just the same old, same old UFO-ologist conspiracy theory stuff. It’s a rather odd transition.

Of course, maybe he’s just confused: maybe he was just briefed on hypotheticals and speculative xenobiology, back when the government still thought it possible that there could be Predators hiding out on the dark side of the moon, and figured they’d better prepare astronauts for anything.

If this guy wants to maintain some credibility, he’s going to have to cough up a lot more details than what he’s claimed so far.

“DNA-Based” Perfume Scam Gathers Steam

July 21, 2008

Longtime Skeptic’s Carnival readers might remember an item I wrote about “DNA-based” perfume way back when. Well, it seems that “My DNA Fragrance” has taken a step up in the world, securing a couple of celebrity plugs and a mention on E!’s Chelsea Lately Show. Their website no longer features jangling flash-based music, but instead a bunch of sweaty spokesbodies writhing in silk to a new slogan: “The scent is in you!”

Unfortunately, the facelift doesn’t seem to have been accompanied by any further explanations of what the heck “based on your DNA” actually means, leaving my skepto-meter solidly at “scam.” In fact, it’s potentially a scam on the level of “naming a star” after someone.

All we know, still, is that you pay nearly 100$ for a Q-tip to swab your cheek, mail it back to them, and then they supposedly have this sample sequenced in a lab. Sometime later, you receive some  “personalized” perfume in an aluminum spray bottle. What happens in between, and what “personalized” even means when translating DNA sequences into smell, is anyone’s guess. They aren’t telling:

Your DNA sample is processed into a numerical sequence similar to a social security number. No one can use this code to deduct any genetic information. Your DNA is used as the blueprint to create a one-of-a-kind fragrance from your genetic code. No two people have the same genetic sequence. Therefore, no two fragrances can smell alike.

My DNA Fragrance™ is made through our revolutionary fragrance formulation process using your genetic sequence as the blueprint to create your exclusive elixir. In the fragrance industry fragrance formulations are a highly guarded trade-secret.

If I took a section of your sequenced DNA (particularly a string without any “identifiers” as they claim), assigned colors to each codon, and then made an image out of it, it would look like, well, random noise. And there are a zillion different ways one could “map” genetic sequences onto another medium such as mixed perfume scents. The results of any one method would technically then be “unique” to you, but the arbitrary choice of method means that you could end up with just about anything at all as an end result.

Why would assigning DNA sequences to smells be any different? The method of translation is everything here. I could build a perfume mix based on the number of moles on your back if I wanted to: the key is not uniqueness, but rather how the source information relates to some final goal. Without telling anyone what the goal of that matching is, and how the DNA sequences help reach it, talking about the final perfume being “based on” your DNA would be just pseudo-scientific psychobabble. So either they are looking for particular genetic markers that in some way relate to genetically determined body odor (thus allowing the company to compliment it with a specific mix of perfume scents), or they’re just arbitrarily translating genetic gibberish into nasal gibberish.

However, if this company has actually identified all the specific genetic markers that determine someone’s body odor, it’s news to me. And news to biologists. While there’s certainly evidence that some significant portion of BO is genetically determined, even top geneticists aren’t anywhere close to having a complete map of the genes determining one’s natural “musk,” let alone knowing all the different genetic variations possible throughout the world’s population. Does this Beverly Hills company know something that top geneticists don’t? Unlikely.

Worse, as I noted in my original article, even if they did have such a process, it would be a tremendous waste of effort. What someone smells like is not some sort of mysterious secret that only your genes can reveal. Noses can do it directly, and on the cheap. Mailing in a patch of a sweaty, pit-stained T-shirt would be a lot more direct and effective way to get information on someone’s unique stench.

Of course, this is all assuming that they even bother running the expensive DNA sequencing at all. Without any information on how your DNA would be mapped to specific scents, this company has a tremendous incentive to simply pocket the huge lab fee, skimp on or entirely omit the sequencing/mapping process, and then just send customers randomly mixed scents. How could anyone argue that they had gotten things “wrong?” What would “wrong” even mean, without any idea of what the translation process is aiming at or trying to match?

In light of all of this, the new testimonials are a hoot:

There are a couple of things that we noticed that might intrigue you too. Glynis insists that there is an element of the fragrance that smells just like the children when they were tiny babies and believe me the look in her eyes tells me something is going on there!

Babies in general have a pretty distinct and recognizable smell, and perhaps the perfume happened to contain an element of that. But if the implication is that the perfume managed by design to capture not only what this specific woman smelled like, but also her children too, then that’s even more implausible than the original sales pitch.

I also noticed that as she moved her hands close to her face the scent would trigger Goosebumps down her arms; something she did not notice herself until I pointed it out to her.

Sounds like a mild allergic reaction to me!

Of course, maybe I’m just spoiling the fun here: giving someone a perfume “tailored to their DNA” may not really mean anything scientifically, but people obviously appreciate the overall sentiment (hence the marketing appeal).

Well, too bad. There’s lots of fun to be had in the world, and not all of it involves buying into dodgy, poorly defined product claims. And for more than 100$ minimum, we’re talking about serious amounts of money that could be spent on sentiments that actually make sense when you think about them.

No Atheists in Retirement Homes, But Fewer Believers to Come

July 18, 2008

USAToday’s poll-maven Frank Newport has a quick analysis of some Gallup Polling on religious preference in the States, in this case regarding religiosity by age group. In many ways it’s not too surprising. Newport can’t help himself when it comes to repeating, without caveat, the usual slander of “no atheists in foxholes,” but he’s got a new modification that apparently hits closer to the mark: “no atheists in retirement homes.” Sigh. Anyhow:

Beginning at age 30 this “no religion” percent begins to decline. By age 40 it’s down in the lower teens, and by age 62 it’s in the single digits. It keeps getting lower. Of all of those we interviewed over the past six months who were 89 years of age (over 150 of them), only 2% said that they had no religious identity whatsoever.

That is indeed a pretty tiny percentage of atheists (if that’s what it really represents: as we’ve seen in other surveys, there seems to be considerable confusion as to what counts as an atheist, and some atheists do have “religious identity” in that they are still culturally this or that, such as secular Jews who observe some holiday traditions and so on).

Newport doesn’t mention it, but in addition to plausible factors like generational differences (old people today grew up in an era where the instilled traditions and expectations involved at least a cultural belief in nigh universal faith) and perhaps even just a plain old likelihood to run to religious belief in the face of age and death, I think a pretty plausible factor here is free time: empty-nested parents and older retirees often just have the time and the space to actually sit down and think about religious preferences that they’d been too busy to really consider seriously during their working/parenting years. I’ll bet that in many cases, the “no religious preference” folks are generic cultural Christians who simply never bothered to find themselves a church.

Still, any atheists who look at religious preference as a numbers game can’t help but be encouraged by the higher-than-normal rates of non-belief amongst the current younger generations. If it’s true that people become more religious as they age, it’s still the case that having fewer religious people to start with ultimately implies fewer religious retirees than there would have been. For all those who think that the “New Atheism” hasn’t had any cultural impact other than increased obnoxiousness… well, the numbers are telling a different story.

Personally, I expect that the real difference between the old people of today and the old people of the future is going to be the cultural impact of computers. The Wii is creeping into retirement communities already: imagine 40 years from now how different the ultra-connected net-generation is going to be than their forebears. We may all become just as demented and physically slowed down as any generation before us. But we’re going to do it texting, gaming, blogging, and generally supplementing our fading physical and mental fortunes with the communicative freedoms and entertainments web.

Warrantless Cell Phone Stalking: Can the Government Use Your Phone’s GPS?

July 3, 2008

Now here’s a really disquieting thought: virtually all new cell phones sold today have some form of passive GPS system (even if the phone itself doesn’t have features that use it). The ostensible purpose is for use in emergencies and 911, but information is information. And the result is that the government, at any time, without your knowledge, and apparently without a court order, can track your location via your phone: put a virtual tail on you.

You’d think that if the government felt it had the right to do this, it would at least inform the public of its new power. But despite ongoing suits by the ACLU and the EFF the government is still mum as to whether it’s done it… even though the documents uncovered so far suggest that they have.

But… I’m honestly not sure how I feel about this.

Kevin Drum discusses the issue here and here, and makes some good points. But he treats the idea that the government needs a court order to track people as obvious. I’m not so sure.

I do think Americans should have some expectation of privacy in their lives, and by and large, when the government wants to target them for any form of surveillance without their knowledge, a court should be involved.

I also think the legal issues over privacy are deeply muddled. The usual legal language used in this area is a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” But courts rarely mean that literally. There are many cases in which defendants pretty clearly did expect and fully believed that their was conduct was private, which should have made things an open and shut case. But often what courts really mean is “whatever reasonable expectation of privacy one might have if they researched the subject in depth.” On that score, the fact that most people don’t know that the government can use cell phone GPS’s to track them, and many don’t even know that their phones have GPS in the first place, will likely not count as a legitimate defense.

On the other hand, the information in question is collected by a private company, and all cell phone users implicitly agree to it in their service contracts. We might complain that no one really reads those darn things… but whose fault is that?

Once that information is collected, it’s no longer really the property of individual users, and if the cell phone companies want to create a database that keeps tabs on the location of every single one of their users over time… well, then can. And if they choose to hand this information over to the police…

The real problem here is that people are living in a world where technology is quickly changing what’s possible, but with very little re-examination of how that might alter the way we live, and what we demand from service providers and in terms of government legislation. And it’s probably going to take some scandals and crises before anything changes, and we as a society confront these sorts of issues head on.

Your Brain Makes Its Decisions Without You: More on Free Will and Identity

July 2, 2008

There’s little doubt that conscious experience is one of the most perplexing phenomenon that… well that it has ever encountered. Not only do we not know what our inner “observing” subject is, we don’t know how to even think about what it is. Why am “I” (whatever it is that’s experiencing anything at all) linked to not just to a body, but to a specific body? Why aren’t “I” someone else? Why is it “like” anything to be a human being, rather than our brains simply carrying out choice and action without any seeming internal passenger?

Philosophers and Theologians have long tried to lay claim to the mystery with concepts like “Soul” or “Free Will” that purport to explain conscious experience or the nature of willed choice, but their attempts have never delivered any actual tangible, additional insight into the phenomenon. Later attempts like “qualia” have only put more names to things we still do not understand. And perhaps it’s no surprise that these attempts have been so unproductive: their ultimate aim has always seemed less about increasing our knowledge, and more about a turf war over which school or ideology can assert exclusive right to this most precious of philosophical possessions.

But while there’s no guarantee that science can ever fully explain consciousness, there can also be no doubt that if you want to learn at least something about it, rather than merely discover new names for things you still don’t understand, neurologists have far more to offer than most traditional philosophers and theologians at this point. And, indeed, what science is revealing is far weirder than we could have ever imagined from any armchair.

Read the rest of this entry »

McCain Doesn’t Understand His Own Cap and Trade Policy?

June 17, 2008

This is truly baffling. In a recent press conference, Presidential Candidate John McCain had this to say about how he plans to regulate air pollution:

MCCAIN: I believe in the cap-and-trade system, as you know. I would not at this time make those — impose a mandatory cap at this time. But I do believe that we have to establish targets for reductions of greenhouse gas emissions over time, and I think those can be met.

This comment makes very little sense, though it might not be immediately apparent why.

The issue for air pollution, in economic terms, is that there is no market to ensure an efficient use of the atmosphere. No one “owns” the air, and so no one can change “rent” on firms that use it as a dumping ground for industrial waste. The result is that firms treat the disposal of their airborne wastes as if it were a free resource, and pollute far more than they actually would if the environmental costs of pollution were actually factored into the market.

The whole point of a cap-and-trade system is that you artificially create scarcity in the market for “polluting” by issuing a limited amount of shares, each of which represents a certain amount of pollution you are allowed to create. This scarcity then forces companies to seriously consider how much their relative need to pollute is worth to them. Some companies can afford to pollute less at certain times, and so they can sell their shares to companies that can’t afford to cut pollution as much. If situations change later, they can buy them back as needed.

The end result is restores a great deal of the economic efficiency and flexibility that you’d get with a normal market, but that you’d lose with traditional, static regulations (in which a set cap impacts all companies equally, despite their very different underlying incentives and needs). And the beauty is that the government can still set an overall level of allowed pollution just by changing the value of the shares. It’s one of the biggest no-brainer improvements to government regulation in a long time: you lose none of the overall control over total pollution, but you gain a self-adjusting system that increases overall efficiency.

McCain, on the other hand, isn’t making any sense. How can cap-and-trade work if the system isn’t “mandatory?” Our atmosphere isn’t actually owned by anyone, and there isn’t actually a limited amount to which all industries can use it. The market only exists insofar as the government requires everyone to pretend that it does.

Confusing the issue even more, McCain talks about how he intends to establish “targets” for less pollution. Again, this makes no sense in the context of cap-and-trade unless the “cap” part is a mandatory and enforced total limit. No capped total limit on pollution, no scarcity of pollution shares, no market, no reason to buy and sell pollution permits, no cap-and-trade system at all. McCain is talking as if by “target” he meant “wishful thinking” and that he expects that the pollution levels will simply, by happy chance, meet his hopes.

So what the heck is he talking about? Another, older, interview gives us a clue:

It’s not quote mandatory caps. It’s cap-and-trade, OK. It’s not mandatory caps to start with. It’s cap-and-trade. That’s very different. OK, because that’s a gradual reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions. So please portray it as cap-and-trade. That’s the way I call it.

It appears that McCain has been spending far too much time with his PR spin team, but doesn’t quite understand what they are telling him to say. What they want to do is have him avoid using the term mandatory caps, and use the term “cap-and-trade” instead. The latter sounds better, the former scares industry.

But somehow, along the way from this interview to yesterday’s press conference, it seems as if McCain got it into his head that this is more than a difference in political language. That he really is against mandatory caps, and supports cap-and-trade… instead of just being instructed to avoid the former terminology in favor of the latter.

HT: Gristmill.